Many travelers, from first-timers to old-hand Japanophiles, consider the autumn months the single best time to visit Japan. The punishing heat and humidity of summer have burned away, and there’s no threat of drenching rains. But for locals, there are two more important reasons to welcome fall: koyo and shun-no-aji — the “changing of the leaves” and the “flavors of the season.”
Let’s take a look at some of the best places to do both in and around Tokyo (though Tokyo is far from the only city to appreciate Japan’s charms of autumn!)
Koyo: Autumn’s Colors
While spring cherry-blossom viewing parties are better known, Japanese treat the changing of the leaves with equal reverence, particularly in places where they form a beautiful backdrop for temples and shrines. In the Tokyo area, the leaves generally begin to change in late October, with colors peaking in mid-November and lasting until early December.
Mount Takao: A holy peak located just an hour from downtown Tokyo by train, Mount Takao is a great place to visit any time of the year. It also happens to be one of the single best spots for catching autumn colors near the capitol. Home to several Buddhist temples, the great thing about Mount Takao is that it’s geared towards nearly any level of climber, from experienced to elderly — there are even chair-lifts and a funicular railway. But this same ease of access means heavy weekend crowds at peak viewing times.
Mt. Takao access: Take the Keio Line from Shinjuku Station to Takaosanguchi Station (roughly 1 hr.).
Nikko: This day trip from Tokyo is better known for Toshogu, the gorgeously gaudy shrine dedicated to the memory of Japan’s most powerful shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The grounds of Toshogu Shrine and neighboring Rinnoji Temple (both currently undergoing renovations but still open to the public) are great places to catch the confluence of man-made and natural colors. And Ryuzu-no-taki falls, located an hour from Toshogu by bus, is equally dramatic in a totally natural setting, with a roaring waterfall framed by crimson and yellow leaves.
Nikko access: From Asakusa, take the Tobu Nikko Line to Nikko Station (roughly 2 hrs.)
Ryuzu-no-taki access: Take a Tobu bus from Nikko Station bound for Yumoto Onsen; disembark at Ryuzu-no-taki station (roughly 1 hr.).
Shun-no-aji: Autumn’s Flavors
In this modern age of greenhouses and fish farms, very few fruits, vegetables, and fish go out of stock at any time of the year. But many connoisseurs feel that certain foods are at their best in certain seasons, particularly with regards to fish. Sanma (saury), kuri (chestnuts), kaki (oyster) and matsutake (mushrooms) are all on the menu in fall.
The good news is, nearly any restaurant worth its salt will feature seasonal items on its menu. Here are a pair of our favorites.
Kuroba-tei: Located in the elegant Tokyo neighborhood of Kagurazaka, Kuroba-tei specializes in kyo-kaiseki (Kyoto-style set course) cuisine, which is known for its attention to seasonal detail. Situated in an old house, the atmosphere is romantic and relaxed. This is slow food at its fines — set aside a couple of hours to savor the multiple handmade courses served over the evening.
Sakana Bar Ippo: Izakaya (Japanese-style gastropubs) are the way most Tokyoites spend a night out on the town. And this little gem, tucked away in an Ebisu neighborhood, is a great way to get a taste for the seasons alongside a healthy “wine list” of regional saké (some fifty varieties at last check). Fish are imported fresh daily from nearby Tsukiji market, and the menu features an ever-changing list of foods based on the season.